The Iranian Parallel
THE HAMLET THEME moves now to Persia. Firdausi’s Shahnama, the Book of Kings, is the national epic of Iran [n1 We cite here the English translation of Arthur and Edward Warner (19051909).], and Firdausi (ca. A.D. 1010) is still today the national poet. At the time Firdausi wrote, his protector, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, had shifted the center of his power to India, and the Iranian empire had long been only a memory. With prodigious scholarship, Firdausi, like Homer before him, undertook to organize and record the Zendic tradition, which extended back from historic times into the purely mythical. The first section on the Pishdadian and Kaianian dynasties must be considered mythical throughout, although it does reach into historic times and encompasses four of the nine volumes of the Book of Kings in the English translation. Khusrau (Chosroes in Greek) is also the name of a line of historical rulers, one of whom, Khusrau Anushirvan, gave sanctuary to the last philosophers of Greece, the members of the Platonic Academy driven out by Justinian in A.D. 529. But Firdausi’s Kai Khusrau is the towering figure of his own mythical age. Almost one-fifth of the whole work is allotted to him. He is actually the Haosravah of the Zend Avesta and also the Rigvedic Sushravah, an identity which raises again the much discussed question of a common Indo-European “Urzeit,” the time of origins.
The common features of Saxo’s Amlethus and Kai Khusrau are so striking that Jiriczek, and after him Zenker, undertook detailed comparative studies. [n2 O. L. Jiriczek, “Hamlet in Iran,” ZVV 10 (1900), pp. 353-64; R. Zenker, Boeve-Amlethus (1905), pp. 207-82.]. But they concluded that the Greek saga of Bellerophon might provide a common origin, and that was the end of their quest. Classical antiquity has a magnetic quality for the scholarly mind. It acts upon it like the Great Lodestone Mountain in Sindbad. The frail philological bark comes apart as soon as Greece looms over the horizon.
Bellerophon’s somber tale would provide a parallel too, but does that have to be the end of the trail? As Herodotus ruefully remarks, his own Hellenic antiquity goes back in recorded memory but a few centuries; beyond that, it blends with the Indo-European patrimony of legends..
In the vast flow of the Shahnama, one prominent feature is the perpetual war between “Untamo” and “Kalervo,” here the two rival peoples of Turan and Iran. Because the vicissitudes of the Kaianian dynasty of Iran are spread over a narrative twice as long as both epics of Milton combined, it is necessary here to concentrate on one essential aspect.
The Iranian plot shows some “displacement” in that Afrasiyab the Turanian kills, instead of his brother, his nephew Siyawush who is also his son-in-law, so that the “avenger” of this crime is bound to come forth as the common grandson of the hostile Turanian Shah Afrasiyab and his brother, the noble Iranian Shah Kai Ka’us (the same one who plays no small role in the Rigveda as Kavya Ushanas, and in the Avesta as Kavi Usan). Siyawush, as commander of his father’s army, offers peace to the Turanian Afrasiyab, who accepts the offer because he has had a catastrophic dream. [n3 Firdausi, Warner trans., vol. 2, pp. 232f.]. This dream resembles those of Tarquin and Ambales. Kai K.a’us does not trust Afrasiyab and declines peace. Siyawush, not wishing to break his own treaty with Turan, goes to live with Afrasiyab.
Afrasiyab honors the young man in every way, and gives him a large province which he rules excellently, i.e., in the “Golden Age” style of his father Kai Ka’us. Siyawush marries first a daughter of the Turanian Piran, then Shah Afrasiyab gives him his own daughter Farangis. But there is a serpent in that garden. Afrasiyab’s jealous brother Garsiwas, an early Polonius, plots so successfully against Siyawush that Afrasiyab finally sends an army against the blameless young ruler. Siyawush is captured and killed. The widowed Farangis escapes, accompanied by Piran (Siyawush’s first father-in-law) to Piran’s home where she gives birth to a boy of great beauty, Kai Khusrau, Afrasiyab’s and Kai Ka’us:’ common grandson:
One dark and moonless night, while birds, wild beasts
And cattle slept, Piran in dream beheld
A splendour that outshone the sun itself,
While Siyawush, enthroned and sword in hand,
Called loudly to him saying: “Rest no more!
Throw off sweet sleep and think of times to come.
For from today new feasts and customs date,
Because to-night is born Shah Kai Khusrau!”
The chieftain roused him from his sweet repose:
Gulshahr the sunny-faced woke. Piran
Said unto her: “Arise, Betake thyself
To minister to Farangis, for I
Saw Siyawush in sleep a moment since,
Surpassing both the sun and moon in lustre,
And crying: ‘Sleep no more, but join the feast
Of Kai Khusrau, the monarch of the world!’ “
Gulshahr came hasting to the Moon and saw
The prince already born; she went with cries
Of joy that made the palace ring again
Back to Piran tbe chief. “Thou wouldest say,”
She cried, “that king and Moon are fairly matched!”
[n4. Firdausi, Warner trans. vol. 2, pp. 325f.]
With this prophetic dream of a great new age begins a long time of trials for the predestined hero. The boy grows up among the shepherds; he becomes a great hunter with a crude bow and arrows that he makes for himself without arrowheads or feathers, like Hamlet whittling his stakes. Grandfather Afrasiyab, being afraid of the boy, orders the prince brought to him so that he can convince himself his victim is harmless. Although Afrasiyab has sworn solemnly not to hurt Khusrau, Piran urges the boy to play the village idiot for his own safety. When the tyrant questions him with feigned benevolence, Kai Khusrau answers in the very same style as Amlethus did, in riddles which sound senseless and indicate that young Khusrau likens himself to a dog. The usurper feels relieved: “The fellow is a fool!”
Now, the tale of vengeance, unduly abbreviated by Saxo’s report and in other versions, is told by Firdausi with an appropriately majestic setting and on a grand scale. The anger of Iran and the world, stemming from the death of Siyawush, is, orchestrated apocalyptically into a cosmic tumult:
The world was all revenge and thou hadst said:
“It is a seething sea!” Earth had no room:
For walking, air was ambushed by the spears;
The stars began to fray, and time and earth
Washed hands in mischief. . .
[n5 Firdausi, Warner trans., vol. 2, p. 342.]
Still, the two archcriminals manage to escape and hide with inexhaustible resourcefulness. Afrasiyab even plays Proteus in the waters of a deep salt lake, constantly assuming new shapes to evade capture. Finally, two volumes and a multitude of events later, Afrasiyab and the evil counsellor are caught with a lasso or a net and both perish.
Only by going back to the Avestan tradition can one make sense of the many vicissitudes to which the Yashts or hymns of the Avesta allude repeatedly. [n6 Yasht 5.41-49; 19.56-64,74]
The Shahs Kai Khusrau and Afrasiyab were contending in a quest for the enigmatic Hvarna, rendered as the “Glory,” or the Charisma of Fortune. To obtain it the Shahs kept sacrificing a hundred horses, a thousand oxen, ten thousand lambs to the goddess Anahita, who is a kind of Ishtar-Artemis. Now this Glory “that belongs to the Aryan nations, born and unborn, and to the holy Zarathustra” was in Lake Vurukasha. Afrasiyab, Shah of the non-Aryan Turanians, was not entitled to it.. But leaving his hiding place in an underground palace of iron “a thousand times the height of man” and illuminated by artificial sun, moon and stars, he tried three times to capture the Hvarna, plunging into Lake Vurukasha. However, “the Glory escaped, the Glory fled away, the Glory changed its seat.” There will be more discussion of Afrasiyab’s attempts and his “horrible utterances,” in the chapter “Of Time and the Rivers.” The Glory was, instead, allotted to Kai Khusrau, and it was bestowed upon him without much ado. At this point it is fair to say that Hvarna stands for Legitimacy, or Heavenly Mandate, which is granted to rulers, but is also easily withdrawn. Yima (Jamshyd), the earliest “world ruler,” lost it three times.
The story of diving Afrasiyab has had many offshoots in Eurasian folklore. There the Turanian Shah is spelled “Devil,” and God causes him to dive to the bottom of the sea, so that in the meantime one of the archangels, or St. Elias, can steal a valuable object which is the legal property of the Devil. Sometimes the object is the sun, sometimes the “divine power,” or thunder and lightning” or even a treaty between God and Devil which had turned out to be unprofitable for God. There remains the essential denouement. During those eventful years, Kai Ka’us held joint rulership with his grandson, secure in the Glory. Shortly after the victory over the upstart, Kai Ka’us dies and Kai Khusrau ascends the Ivory Throne. For sixty years, says the poem, “the whole world was obedient to his sway.” It is striking that there is no word of any event after Kai Ka’us’ death. Maybe it is because all has been achieved. Happy reigns have no history. But it is told that Kai Khusrau falls into deep melancholy and soul searching. [n7 Firdausi, Warner trans., vol. 4, pp. 272ff.]
He fears he may “grow arrogant in soul, corrupt in thought” like his predecessors Yima (Jamshyd) and, among others, Kai Ka’us himself, who had tried to get himself carried to heaven by eagles like the Babylonian Etana. So he makes the supreme decision:
“And now I deem it better to depart
To God in all my glory. . .
Because this Kaian crown and throne will pass.”
The great Shah, then, who had once stated (at his first joint enthronement) :
“The whole world is my kingdom, all is mine
From Pisces downward to the Bull’s head,”
[n8 Firdausi, Warner trans., vol. 2, p. 407.]
prepares his departure, takes leave of his paladins, waving aside their supplications and those of his whole army:
A cry rose from the army of Iran:
The sun hath wandered from its way in heaven!
The dream of Tarquin finds here an early echo. The Shah appoints as his successor Luhrasp and wanders off to a mountaintop, accompanied by five of his paladins, to whom he announces in the evening, before they sit down for the last time to talk of the great past they have lived together:
“What time the radiant sun shall raise its flag,
And turn the darksome earth to liquid gold,
Then is the time when I shall pass away
And haply with Surush for company.”
[n9 Surush = A vestic Sraosha, the “angel” of Ahura Mazdah.]
Toward dawn he addresses his friends once more:
“Farewell for ever! When the sky shall bring
The sun again ye shall not look on me
Henceforth save in your dreams. Moreover be not
Here on the morrow on these arid sands,
Although the clouds rain musk, for from the Mountains
Will rise a furious blast and snap the boughs
And leafage of the trees, a storm of snow
Will shower down from heaven’s louring rack,
And towards Iran ye will not find the track.”
The chieftains’ heads were heavy at the news.
The warriors slept in pain, and when the sun
Rose over the hills the Shah had disappeared.
The five paladins are lost and buried in the snowstorm.
[n10 This theme of sleep in the ((hour of Gethsemane” will occur more than once, e.g., in Gilgamesh. The myth of Quetzalcouatl is even more circumstantial. The exiled ruler is escorted by the dwarves and hunchbacks, who are also lost in the snow along what is now the Cortez Pass, while their ruler goes on to the sea and departs. But here at least he promises to come back and judge the living and the dead.
History, Myth and Reality
THE STRANGE END of the Iranian tale, which concludes with an ascent to heaven like that of Elias, leaves the reader wondering. If this is the national epos (almost one half of it in content), where is the epic and the tragic element? In fact, there is a full measure of the Homeric narrative in Firdausi that had to be left aside, there are great battles as on the windy plains of Troy, challenges and duels, the incredible feats of heroes like Rustam and Zal, abductions and intrigues, infinite subplots to the tale, enough for a bard to entertain his patrons for weeks and to ensure him a durable supply of haunches of venison. But the intervention of the gods in the tale is not so humanized as in the Iliad, although it shows through repeatedly in complicated symbolism and bizarre fairy tales. The conflict of will and fate is not to the measure of man. What has been traced above is a confusing story of dynastic succession under a shadowy Glory, a Glory without high events, keyed to a Hamlet situation and an unexplained melancholy. The essence is an unsubstantial pageant of ambiguous abstractions, an elusive ballet of wildly symbolic actions tied to ritual magic and religious doctrines, with motivations which bear no parallel to normal ones. The whole thing is a puzzle to be interpreted through hymns –very much as in the Rigveda.
But here at last there is given apertis verbis one key to the imagery: Khusrau’s crowning words:
“The whole world is my kingdom: all is mine
From Pisces downward to the Bull’s head.”
If a hero of the western hemisphere were to proclaim: “All of this continent is mine, from Hatteras to Eastport,” he would be considered afflicted with a one-dimensional fancy. Does that stretch of coast stand in his mind for a whole continent? Yet here the words make perfect sense because Kai Khusrau does not refer to the earth. He designates that section of the zodiac comprised between Pisces and Aldebaran, the thirty degrees which cover the constellation Aries. It means that his reign is not only of heaven, it is essentially of Time. The dimension of heaven is Time. Kai Khusrau comes in as a function of time, preordained by events in the zodiac.
“For from today new feasts and customs date. . .”
Why Aries, and what it all imports, is not relevant at this point. It turns out that “ruler of Aries” was the established title of supreme power in Iran, [n1 Persia “belongs” to Aries according to Paulus Alexandrinus. See Boll’s Sphaera, pp. 296f., where it is stated that this was the oldest scheme. It is still to be found in the Apocalypse. Moses’ ram’s horns stand for the same world-age.] and it may have meant as much or as little as “Holy Roman Emperor” in the West. What counts is that Rome is a place on earth, whose prestige is connected with a certain. historical period, whereas Aries is a zone of heaven, or rather, since heaven keeps moving, a certain time determined by heavenly motion in connection with that constellation. Rome is a historic fact, even “Eternal Rome,” which was once and then is left only to memory. Aries is a labeled time, and is bound to come back within certain cycles.
Even if Kai Khusrau is conceived as a worldly ruler in an epos which prefaces history, it is clear that no modern historical or naturalistic imagination can provide the key to such minds as those of the Iranian bards out of whose rhapsodies the learned Firdausi organized the story. No basis in history can be found, no fertility or seasonal symbolism can be traced into it, and even the psychoanalysts have given up trying. This type of thought can be defined in one way: it is essentially cosmological. This is not to make things uselessly difficult, but to outline the real frame of mythical thought, such as is actually quite familiar and yet by now hardly recognized. It even appears in the mode of lyrical meditation, at least in the English of Fitzgerald:
Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose
And Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ringed Cup where no one knows
But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields
And still a Garden by the Water blows.
And look-a thousand Blossoms with the Day
Woke-and a thousand scatter’d into Clay
And the first Summer month that brings the Rose
Shall take Jamshyd and Kai Kubad away.
But come with old Khayyam, and leave the lot
Of Kai Kubad and Kai Khosrau forgot. . .
Omar Khayyam may speak as a weary skeptic or a mystical Sufi, but all he speaks of is understood as real. The heroes of the past are as real as the friends for whom he is writing, as the vine and the roses and the waters, as his own direct experience of flux and impermanence in life. When he makes his earthenware pots to feel and think, it is no literary trope; it is the knowledge that all transient things are caught in the same transmutation, that all substance is one: the stuff that pots and men and dreams are made of.
This is what could be called living reality, and it is singularly different from ordinary or objective reality. When the poet thinks that this brick here may be the clay that was once Kai Khusrau, he rejoins Hamlet musing in the graveyard: “To what base uses we return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till’a find it stopping a bung-hole?” Here are already four characters, two of them unreal, two lost in the haze of time, yet all equally present in our game, whereas most concrete characters, say the Director of Internal Revenue, are not, however they may affect us otherwise. In that realm of “true existence” we shall find stars and vines and roses and water, the eternal forms, and it will include also the ideas of mathematics, another form of direct experience. The world of history is outside it as a whole. Khayyam does not, any more than Firdausi a generation later, mention the glories of Cyrus and Artaxerxes, but only mythical heroes, just as our own Middle Ages ignored history and spoke of Arthur and Gawain. It had been all “once upon a time,” and if Dante brings back myth so powerfully to life, it is because his own contemporaries believed themselves truly descended from Dardanus and Troy, and wondered whether the Lord Ulysses might not still be alive; whereas Kaiser Barbarossa, asleep in his Kyffhauser mountain–that must surely be a fable like Snow White. Or is it? Fairy tales are easily dismissed for their familiar sound. But it might turn out that such great imperial figures turned into legend have a hidden life of their own, that they follow the laws of myth laid down long before them. Even as King Arthur did not really die but lives on in the depth of the mystic lake, according to Merlin’s prophecy, so Godfrey of Viterbo (c. 1190), who had been in Barbarossa’s service, alone brings the “true” version. It is the orthodox one. in strangely preserved archaic language: the Emperor sleeps on in the depth of the Watery Abyss (cf. chapter 11 and appendix #33) where the retired rulers of the world are.
Voire, ou sont de Constantinople
L’ empereurs aux poings dorez . . .
A distinction begins to appear between myth an fable. Hamlet is showing himself in the aspect of a true myth, a universal one. He is still that now. And Khayyam was the greatest mathematician of his time, the author of a planned calendar reform which turned out to be even more precise than the one that was adopted later as the Gregorian calendar, an intellect in whom trenchant skepticism could coexist with profound Sufi intellection. He knew full well that Jamshyd’s seven-ringed cup is not lost, since it stands for the seven planetary circles of which Jamshyd is the ruler, just as Jamshyd’s magic mirror goes on reflecting the whole world, as it is the sky itself. But it is natural to let them retain their iridescent mystery, since they belong to the living reality, like Plato’s whorls and his Spindle of Necessity. Or like Hamlet himself.
What then were Jamshyd or Kai Khusrau? To the simple, a magic image, a fable. To those who understood, a reflection of Time itself, obviously one of its major aspects. They could be recognized under many names in many places, even conflicting allusions. It was always the same myth, and that was enough. It expressed the laws of the universe, in that specific language, the language of Time. This was the way to talk about the cosmos.
All that is living reality, sub specie transeuntis, has a tale, as it appears in awesome, or appalling, or comforting aspects, in the “fearful symmetry” of tigers or theorems, or stars in their courses, but always alive to the soul. It is a play of transmutations which include us, ruled by Time, framed in the eternal forms. A thought ruled by Time can be expressed only in myth. When mythical languages were universal and self-explanatory, thought was also self-sufficient. It could seek no explanation of itself in other terms, for it was reality expressed as living. As Goethe said, “Alles Vergangliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.”
Men today are trained to think in spatial terms to localize objects. After childhood, the first question is “where and when did it happen?” As science and history invade the whole landscape of thought, the events of myth recede into mere fable. They appear as escape fantasies: unlocated, hardly serious, their space ubiquitous, their time circular.
Yet some of those stories are so strong that they have lived on vividly. These are true myths. These personages are unmistakably identified, yet elusively fluid in outline. They tell of gigantic figures and superhuman events which seem to occupy the whole living space between heaven and earth. Those figures often lend their names to historical persons in passing and then vanish. Any attempt to tie them down to history, even to the tradition of great and catastrophic events, is invariably a sure way to a false trail. Historical happenings will never “explain” mythical events. Plutarch already knew as much. Instead, mythical figures have invaded history under counterfeit presentments, and subtly shaped it to their own ends. This is a working rule which was established long ago, and it has proved constantly valid, if one is dealing with true myth and not with ordinary, legends. to be sure, mythical figures are born and pass on, but not quite like mortals. There have to be characteristic styles for them like The Once and Future King. Were they once? Then they have been before, or will be again, in other names, under other aspects, even as the sky brings back forever its configurations. Surely, if one tried to pinpoint them as persons and things, they would melt before his eyes, like the products of sick fantasy. But if one respects their true nature, they will reveal that nature as functions.
Functions of what? Of the general order of things as it could be conceived. These figures express the behavior of that vast complex of variables once called the cosmos. They combine in themselves variety, eternity, and recurrence, for such is the nature of the cosmos itself. That the cosmos might be infinite seems to have remained beyond the threshold of awareness of humankind up to the time of Lucretius, of Bruno and Galileo. And Galileo himself, who had serious doubts on the matter, agreed with all his predecessors that surely the universe is eternal, and that hence all its changes come under the law of periodicity and recurrence. “What is eternal,” Aristotle said, “is circular, and what is circular is eternal.”
That was the mature conclusion of human thought over millennia. It was, as has been said, an obsession with circularity. There is nothing new under the sun, but all things come back in ever-varying recurrence. Even the hateful word “revolution” referred once only to those of the celestial orbs. The cosmos was one vast system full of gears within gears, enormously intricate in its connections, which could be likened to a many-dialed clock. Its functions appeared and disappeared all over the system, like strange cuckoos in the clock, and wonderful tales were woven around them t describe their behavior; but just as in an engine, one cannot understand each part until one has understood the way all the parts interconnect in the system.
Similarly, Rudyard Kipling in a droll allegory, “The Ship That Found Herself,” once explained what happens on a new ship in her shakedown voyage. All the parts spring into clamorous being as each plays its role for the first time, the plunging pistons, the groaning cylinders, the robust propeller shaft, the straining bulkheads, the chattering rivets, each feeling at the center of the stage, each telling the steam about its own unique and incomparable feats, until at last they subside into silence as a new deep voice is heard, that of the ship, who has found her identity at last.
This is exactly what happens with the great array of myths. All the myths presented tales, some of them weird, incoherent or outlandish, and some epic and tragic. At last it is possible to understand them as partial representations of a system, as functions of a whole. The vastness and complexity of the system is only beginning to take shape, as the parts fall into place. The only thing to do is proceed inductively, step by step, avoiding preconceptions and letting the argument lead toward its own conclusions.
In the simple story of Kai Khusrau, the Hamlet-like features are curiously preordained, although it is not clear to what end. The King’s power is explicitly linked, in time and space, with the moving configurations of the heavens. It is common knowledge that heaven in its motion does provide coordinates for time and place on earth: The navigator’s business is to operate on this connection between above and below. But in the early centuries, the connection was infinitely richer in meaning. No historical monarch, however convinced of his charisma, could have said: “The whole world is my kingdom, all is mine from Pisces to Aldebaran.” Earthly concepts seem to have been transferred to heaven, and inversely. In fact, this world of myth imbricates uranography and geography into a whole which is really one cosmography, and the “geographical” features referred to can be mystifying, as they may imply either of these domains or both.
For instance, when the “rivers” Okeanos or Eridanos are mentioned, are they not conceived as being first in heaven and then eventually on earth, too? It is as if any region beyond ancient man’s direct ken were to be found simply “upwards.” True events, even in an official epic like the Shahnama, are not “earth-directed.” They tend to move “upwards.” This is the original form of astrology, which is both vaster and less defined than the later classic form which Ptolemy set forth. Even as the cosmos is one, so cosmography is made up of inextricably intertwined data. To say that events on earth reflect those in heaven is a misleading simplification to begin with. In Aristotelian language, form is said to be metaphysically prior to matter, but both go together. It is still necessary to discover which is the focus of “true” events in heaven.
To recapitulate for clarity, whatever is true myth has no historical basis, however tempting the reduction, however massive and well armed the impact of a good deal of modern criticism on that belief. The attempt to reduce myth to history is the so-called “euhemerist” trend, from the name of Euhemeros, the first debunker. It was a wave of fashion which is now receding, for it was too simpleminded to last. Myth is essentially cosmological. As heaven in the cosmos is so vastly more important than our earth, it should not be surprising to find the main functions deriving from heaven. To identify them under a variety of appearances is a matter of mythological judgment, of the capacity to recognize essential forms through patient sifting of the immense amount of material.
Hamlet “is” here Kullervo, there Brutus or Kai Khusrau, but always recognizably the same. Jamshyd reappears as Yama among the Indo-Aryans, as Huang-ti, the Yellow Emperor, in China, and under many other names. There was always the tacit understanding, for those who spoke the archaic language, who were involved in the archaic cosmos, that he is everywhere the same function. And who is the Demiurge? He has many names indeed. Plato does not care to explain in our terms. Is this personage a semi-scientific fiction, the manufacturer of a planetarium, just as the Lost Continent of Atlantis is a semi-historical fiction? The author himself says only that such stories are “not quite serious.” Yet they are surely not a spoof. Plato, who shaped what is called philosophy and its language, who was the master of its penetrating distinction, reverts to the language of myth when he feels he has to; and he uses that ancient language as if to the manner born. [n2 In his Seventh Letter (341C-344D) he denies strongly that scientific “names” and “sentences” (onomata, remata) could assist in obtaining essential insight. Cf. also Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromata 5-9-58.]
In this accounting for past myths, the heart of the problem remains elusive. Kipling was a writer still marvelously attuned to the juvenile mind that lives in most of us. But the fact is that myth itself, as a whole, is a lost world. The last forms–or rehearsals–of a true myth took place in medieval culture: the Romance of Alexander, and the Arthurian myth as it is found in Malory. [n* Still, there have been modern attempts deserving the name of myth. One, of course, is Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, which has taken on so much meaning through the centuries. We realize today that it, too, was partly oracular. And we should not forget Alice in Wonderland, the perfect nonsense myth, as significant and as nonsensical as the Kalevala, itself. This parallel will appear relevant at the end of the appendices. Today, there is Austin Wright’s Islandia, which appeared in 1942, and its present sequel, The lslar, by Mark Saxton, to be published in the autumn of 1969.]
There are other stories–we call them history–of man’s conquest over nature, the telling of the great adventure of mankind as a whole. But here it is only faceless social man who is winning man’s victories. It is not the history of technology; it is, if anything, science fiction that can bring in the adventures of the future. Science fiction, when it is good, is a wholly valid attempt at restoring a mythical element, with its adventures and tragedies, its meditations on man’s errors and man’s fate. For true tragedy is an essential component or outcome of myth. Possibly, history can be given a minute of timeliness and then dismissed with its load of interpretations and apprehensions that last as long as the reading–but the real present, the only thing that counts, is the eternal Sphinx.
Today’s children, that impassive posterity to whom all reverence is due, know where to look for myths: in animal life, in the Jungle Books, in the stories of Lassie and Flipper, where innocence is unassailable, in Western adventures suitably arranged by grownups for the protection of law and order. Much of the rest sedulously built up by mass media is modern prejudice and delusion, like the glamor of royalty, or the perfection of super-detergents and cosmetics: super-stitio, leftovers. So one might feel tempted to say actually, however, no particle of myth today is left over, and we have to do only with a deliberate lie about the human condition. Tolkien’s efforts at reviving the genre, whatever the talent employed, carry as much conviction as the traditional three-dollar bill. The assumed curious child would have been pleased only if he had been told the “story” of the engine just as Kipling tells it, which is hardly the style of a mechanical engineer. But suppose now the child had been confronted with the “story” of a planet as it emerges from the textbooks of celestial mechanics, and had been asked to calculate its orbits and perturbations. This would be a task for a joyless grownup, and a professional one at that. Who else could face the pages bristling with partial differential equations, with long series of approximations, with integrals contrived from pointless quadratures? Truly a world of reserved knowledge. But if, on the other hand, a person living several thousand years ago had been confronted with cunningly built tales of Saturn’s reign, and of his exorbitant building and modeling activities-after he had separated Heaven and Earth by means of that fateful sickle, that is, after he had established the obliquity of the ecliptic. If he had heard of Jupiter’s ways of command and his innumerable escapades, populating the earth with gentle nymphs forever crossed in their quest for happiness, escapades that were invariably successful in spite of the constant watchfulness of his jealous “ox-eyed” or sometimes “dog-eyed” spouse. . . If this person also learned of the fierce adventures of Mars, and the complex mutual involvement of gods and heroes expressing themselves in terms of action and unvarying numbers, he would have been a participant in the process of mythical knowledge. This knowledge would have been transmitted by his elders, confirmed by holy commands, rehearsed by symbolic experiences in the form of musical rites and performances involving his whole people. He would have found it easier to respect than comprehend, but it would have led to an idea of the overall texture of the cosmos. In his own person, he would have been part of a genuine theory of cosmology, one he had absorbed by heart, that was responsive to his emotions, and one that could act on his aspirations and dreams. This kind of participation in ultimate things, now extremely difficult for anyone who has not graduated in astrophysics, was then possible to some degree for everyone, and nowhere could it be vulgarized.
That is what is meant here by mythical knowledge. It was understood only by a very few, it appealed to many, and it is forever intractable for those who approach it through “mathematics for the million” or by speculations on the unconscious. In other words, this is a selective and difficult approach, employing the means at hand and much thought, limited surely, but resistant to falsification.
How, in former times, essential knowledge was transmitted on two or more intellectual levels can be learned from Germaine Dieterlen’s Introduction to, Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemméli, which deals with Dogon education and with the personal experience of the members of La Mission Griaule, who had to wait sixteen years before the sage old men of the tribe decided to “open the door.” [n3 M. Griaule, Conversations with Ogote11zmeli (1965), pp. xiv- vii.] The description is revealing enough to be quoted in full:
In African societies which have preserved their traditional organization the number of persons who are trained in this knowledge is quite considerable. This they call “deep knowledge” in contrast with “simple knowledge” which is regarded as “only a beginning in the understanding of beliefs and customs” that people who are not fully instructed in the cosmogony possess. There are various reasons for the silence that is generally observed on this subject. To a natural reserve before strangers who, even when sympathetic, remain unconsciously imbued with a feeling of superiority, one must add the present situation of rapid change in African societies through contact with mechanization and the influence of school teaching. But among groups where tradition is still vigorous, this knowledge, which is expressly characterized as esoteric, is only secret in the following sense: it is in fact open to all who show a will to understand so long as, by their social position and moral conduct, they are judged worthy of. It. Thus every family head, every priest, every grown-up person responsible for some small fraction of social life can, as part of the social group, acquire knowledge on condition that he has the patience and, as the African phrase has it, “he comes to sit by the side of the competent elders” over the period and in the state of mind necessary. Then he will receive answers to all his questions, but it will take years. Instruction begun in childhood during assemblies and rituals of the age-sets continues in fact throughout life.
These various aspects of African civilization gradually became clear in the course of intensive studies undertaken among several of the peoples of Mali and Upper Volta over more than a decade. In the case of the Dogon, concerning whom there have already been numerous publications, these studies have made possible the elaboration of a synthesis covering the greater part of their activities.
We should now record the important occurrence during the field expedition of 1947 which led to the writing of this particular study. From 1931 the Dogon had answered questions and commented on observations made during previous field trips on the basis of the interpretation of facts which they call “la parole de face”; this is the “simple knowledge” which they give in the first instance to all enquirers. Publications of information obtained before the studies in 1948 relate to this first level of interpretation,
But the Dogon came to recognize the great perseverance of Marcel Griaule and his team in their enquiries, and that it was becoming increasingly difficult to answer the multiplicity of questions without moving on to a different level. They appreciated our eagerness for an understanding which earlier explanations had certainly not satisfied, and which was clearly more important to us than anything else. Griaule had also shown a constant interest in the daily life of the Dogon, appreciating their efforts to exploit a difficult country where there was a serious lack of water in the dry season, and our relationships, which had thus extended beyond those of ethnographical enquiry, became more and more trusting and affectionate. In the light of all this, the Dogon took their own decision, of which we learned only later when they told us themselves. The elders of the lineages of the double village of Ogol and the most important totemic priests of the region of Sanga met together and. decided that the more esoteric aspects of their religion should be fully revealed to Professor Griaule. To begin this they chose one of their best informed members, Ogotomméli, who, as will be seen in the introduction, arranged the first interview. This first exposition lasted exactly the number of days recorded in Dieu d’ Eau, in which the meandering flow of information is faithfully reported. Although we knew nothing of it at the time, the progress of this instruction by Ogotémmeli was being reported on daily to the council of elders and priests.
The seriousness and importance of providing this exposé of Dogon belief was all the greater because the Dogon elders knew perfectly well that in doing so they were opening the door, not merely to these thirty days of information, but to later and more intensive work which was to extend over months and years. They never withdrew from this decision, and we should like to express here our grateful thanks to them. After Ogotémmeli’s death, other carried on the work. And since Professor Griaule’s death they have continued with the same patience and eagerness to complete the task. they had undertaken. These later enquiries have made possible the publication of the many further studies cited in the bibliography, and the preparation of a detailed treatise entitled Le Renard Pale, the first part of which is now in press. And in 1963, as this is written, the investigation still continues.
A Guide for the Perplexed
THIS BOOK is highly unconventional, and often the flow of the tales will be interrupted to put in words of guidance, in the fashion of the Middle Ages, to emphasize salient points.
To begin with, there is no system that can be presented in modern analytical terms. There is no key, and there are no principles from which a presentation can be deduced. The structure comes from a time when there was no such thing as a system in our sense, and it would be unfair to search for one. There could hardly have been one among people who committed all their ideas to memory. It can be considered a pure structure of numbers. From the beginning we considered calling this essay “Art of the Fugue.” And that excludes any “world-picture,” a point that cannot be stressed strongly enough. Any effort to use a diagram is bound to lead into contradiction. It is a matter of times and rhythm.
The subject has the nature of a hologram, something that has to be present as a whole to the mind. [nl In optics, “hologram” is the interference pattern of light with itself; Le., every part of an image is displayed at every point, as if every point looked at every source of light.]. Archaic thought is cosmological first and last; it faces the gravest implications of a cosmos in ways which reverberate in later classic philosophy. The chief implication is a profound awareness that the fabric of the cosmos is not only determined, but overdetermined and in a way that does not permit the simple location of any of its agents, whether simple magic or astrology, forces, gods, numbers, planetary powers, Platonic Forms, Aristotelian Essences or Stoic Substances. Physical reality here cannot be analytical in the Cartesian sense; it cannot be reduced to concreteness even if misplaced. Being is change, motion and rhythm, the irresistible circle of time, the incidence of the “right moment,” as determined by the skies.
There are many events, described with appropriate terrestrial imagery, that do not, however, happen on earth. In this book there is mention of floods. In tradition, not one but three floods are registered, one being the biblical flood, equivalents of which are mentioned in Sumerian and Babylonian annals. The efforts of pious archaeologists to connect the biblical narrative with geophysical events are highly conjectural. There have been floods in Mesopotamia causing grievous loss of life. There still are in he river plains of China and elsewhere, but none of the total nature that the Bible describes.
There are tales, too, of cataclysmic deluges throughout the great continental masses, in Asia and America, told by peoples who have never seen the sea, or lakes, or great rivers. The floods the Greeks described, like the flood of Deucalion, are as “mythical” as the narrative of Genesis. Greece is not submersible, unless by tsunamis. Deucalion and hjs wife landed on Mount Parnassus, high above Delphi, the “Navel of the Earth,” and were the only survivors of this flood, the second, sent by Zeus in order to destroy the men of one world-age. Classical authors disagreed on the specification of which world-age. Ovid voted for the Iron Age. Plato’s Solon keeps his conversation with the Egyptian priest on a mythical level, and his discussion of the two types of world destruction, by fire or water, is astronomical.
The “floods refer to an old astronomical image, based on an abstract geometry. That this is not an “easy picture” is not to be wondered at, considering the objective difficulty of the science of astronomy. But although a modern reader does not expect a text on celestial mechanics to read like a lullaby, he insists on his capacity to understand mythical “images” instantly, because he can respect as “scientific” only page-long approximation formulas, and the like.
He does not think of the possibility that equally relevant knowledge might once have been expressed in everyday language. He never suspects such a possibility, although the visible accomplishments of ancient cultures–to mention only the pyramids, or metallurgy–should be a cogent reason for concluding that serious and intelligent men were at work behind the stage, men who were bound to have used a technical terminology.
Thus, archaic “imagery” is strictly verbal, representing a specific type of scientific language, which must not be taken at its face value nor accepted as expressing more or less childish “beliefs.” Cosmic phenomena and rules were articulated in the language, or terminology, of myth, where each key word was at least as “dark” as the equations and convergent series by means of which our modern scientific grammar is built up. To state it briefly, as we are going to do, is not to explain it –far from it.
First, what was the “earth”? In the most general sense, the “earth” was the ideal plane laid through the ecliptic., The “dry earth,” in a more specific sense, was the ideal plane going through the celestial equator. The equator thus divided two halves of the zodiac which ran on the ecliptic, 23½° inclined to the equator, one half being “dry land” (the northern band of the zodiac, reaching from the vernal to the autumnal equinox), the other representing the “waters below” the equinoctial plane (the southern arc of the zodiac, reaching from the autumnal equinox, via the winter solstice, to the vernal equinox). The terms “vernal equinox,” “winter solstice,” etc., are used intentionally because myth deals with time, periods of time which correspond to angular measures, and not with tracts In space.
This could be neglected were it not for the fact that the equinoctial “points” “and therefore, the solstitial ones, too–do not remain forever where they should in order to make celestial goings-on easier to understand, namely, at the same spot with respect to the sphere of the fixed stars. Instead, they stubbornly move along the ecliptic in the opposite direction to the yearly course of the sun, that is, against the “right” sequence of the zodiacal signs (Taurus→Aries→Pisces, instead of Pisces→ Aries→Taurus).
This phenomenon is called the Precession of the Equinoxes, and it was conceived as causing the rise and the cataclysmic fall of ages of the world. Its cause is a bad habit of the axis of our globe, which turns around in the manner of a spinning top, its tip being in the center of our small earth-ball, whence our earth axis, prolonged to the celestial North Pole, describes a circle around he North Pole of the ecliptic, the true “center” of the planetary system, the radius of this circle being of the same magnitude as the obliquity of the ecliptic with respect to the equator: 23 ½ o. The time which this prolonged axis needs to circumscribe the ecliptical North Pole is roughly 26,000 years, during which period it points to one star after another: around 3000 B.C. the Pole star was alpha Draconis; at the time of the Greeks it was beta Ursae Minoris; for the time being it is alpha Ursae Minoris; in A.D. 14,000 it will be Vega. The equinoxes, the points of intersection of ecliptic and equator, swinging from the spinning axis of the earth, move with the same speed of 26,000 years along the ecliptic.
The sun’s position among the constellations at the vernal equinox was the pointer that indicated the “hours” of the precessional cycle–very long hours indeed, the equinoctial sun occupying each zodiacal constellation for about 2,200 years. The constellation that rose in the east just before the sun (that is, rose heliacally) marked the “place” where the sun rested. At this time it was known as the sun’s “carrier,” and as the main “pillar” of the sky, the vernal equinox being recognized as the fiducial point of the “system,” determining the first degree of the sun’s yearly circle, and the first day of the year. (When we say, it was “recognized” we mean that it was spelled “carrier” or “pillar,” and the like; it must be kept in mind that we are dealing with a specific terminology, and not with vague and primitively rude “beliefs.”) At ime Zero (say, 5000 B.C.–there are reasons for this approximate date), the sun was in Gemini; it moved ever so slowly from Gemini into Taurus, then Aries, then Pisces, which it still occupies and will for some centuries more. The advent of Christ the Fish marks our age. It was hailed by Virgil, shortly before Anno Domini: “a new great order of centuries is now being born. . .” which earned Virgil the strange title of prophet of Christianity. The precedIng age, that of Aries, had been heralded by Moses coming down from Mount Sinai as “two-horned,” that is, crowned with the Ram’s horns, while his flock disobediently insisted upon dancing around the “Golden Calf” that was, rather, a “Golden Bull,” Taurus.
Thus, the revolving heavens gave the key, the events of our globe receding into insignificance, attention was focused on the supernal presences, away from the phenomenal chaos around us. What moved in heaven of its own motion, the planets in their weeks and years, took on ever more awesome dignity. They were the Persons of True Becoming. The zodiac was where things really happened, for the planets, the true inhabitants, knew what they were doing, and mankind was only passive to their behest. It is revealing to look at the figure drawn by a West Sudanese Dogon at the request of Professor Zahan, showing the world egg, with the “inhabited world” between the tropics, “le cylindre ou rectangle du monde.” [n2 D. Zahan and S. de Ganay “Etudes sur la cosmologie des Dogon,” Africa 21 (1951), p. 14.]. The Dogon are fully aware of the fact that the region between the terrestrial tropics is not the best of inhabitable quarters, and so were their teachers of far-off times, the archaic scientists who coined the terminology of myth. What counted was the zodiacal band between the celestial tropics, delivering the houses, and the inns, the “masks” (prosopa), and the disguises to the much traveling and “shape-shifting” planets.
How far this point of view was from modern indifference can hardly be appreciated except by those who can see the dimensions of the historical chasm that opened with the adoption of the Copernican doctrine. What had been for Sir Thomas Browne an o altitudo crowded with religious emotions, presences and presentiments has become a platitude that could at best inspire a Russian cosmonaut with the triumphant observation: “I have been up in the sky, and nowhere did I find God.” Astronomy has come down into the realm of exterior ballistics, a subject for the adventures of the Space Patrol.
One might say that it takes a wrenching effort of the imagination to restore in us the capacity for wonder of an Aristotle, But it would be misleading to talk of “us” generally, because the average Babylonian or Greek showed as little inclination to wonder at order and law in nature as our average contemporaries do. It has been and will be the mark of a true scientific mind to search for, and to wonder at, the invariable structure of number behind the manifold appearances. (It needs the adequate “expectation,” the firm confidence in “sense”–and “sense” does mean number and order for us, since the birth of high civilization–to discover the periodical system of the elements or, further on, Balmer’s series) Whence it is much easier for a great scientist–for instance, Galileo, Kepler, or Newton–to appreciate master feats of early mathematicians than it is for the average humanist of all ages, No professional historian of culture is likely to understand better the intellectual frame of mind of the Maya than the astronomer Hans Ludendorff has done.
It is not so much the enormous number of new facts established by scientists in the many centuries between antiquity and the 20th century which separates us from the outlook of our great scientific ancestors but the “deteriorated” expectations ruling our time. Kepler’s quest, were he living today, would be to discover a modified perspective from which to rediscover the Harmonice Mundi on another scale, But, after all, what else if not such a quest for the establishment of a new kind of cosmos is the work on the “general field formula”? This time, the cosmos, as covered by the coming-to-be formula, will be understandable and will make “sense” only for the best mathematicians, to the complete exclusion of the common people, and it will hardly be a “meaningful” universe such as the archaic one had been.
To come back to the key words of ancient cosmology: if the words “flat earth” do not correspond in any way to the fancies of the flat-earth fanatics who still infest the fringes of our society and who in the guise of a few preacher-friars made life miserable for Columbus, so the name of “true earth” (or of “the inhabited world”) did not in any way denote our physical geoid for the archaics.
It applies to the band of the zodiac, two dozen degrees right and left of the ecliptic, to the tracks of the “true inhabitants” of this world, namely, the planets. It comprises their various oscillations and curlicues from their courses, and also the “dragon,” well known from very early times, which causes eclipses by swallowing the sun and moon.
On the zodiacal band, there are four essential points which dominate the four seasons of the year. They are, in fact, in church liturgy the quatuor tempora marked with special abstinences. They correspond to the two solstices and the two equinoxes. The solstice is the “turning back” of the sun at the lowest point of winter and at the highest point of summer. The two equinoxes, vernal and autumnal, are those that cut the year in half, with an equal balance of night and day, for they are the two intersections of the equator with the ecliptic. Those four points together made up the four pillars, or corners, of what was called the “quadrangular earth.”
This is an essential feature that needs more attention. We have said above that “earth,” in the most general sense, meant the ideal plane laid through the ecliptic; meanwhile we are prepared to improve the definition: “earth” is the ideal plane going through the four points of the year, the equinoxes and the solstices. Since the four constellations rising heliacally at the two equinoxes and the two solstices determine and define an “earth,” it is termed quadrangular (and by no means “believed” to be quadrangular by “primitive” Chinese, and so on). And since constellations rule the four corners of the quadrangular earth only temporarily, such an “earth” can rightly be said to perish, and a new earth to rise from the waters, with four new constellations rising at the four points of the year. Virgil says: “lam redit et Virgo. . .” (already the Virgin is returning). (It is important to remember the vernal equinox as the fiducial point; it is from this fact that a new earth is termed to rise from the waters. In reality, only the new vernal equinoctial constellation climbs from the sea onto the dry land above the equator the inverse happens diametrically opposite. [n3 In a similar sense, Perronius’ Trimalchio says about the, month of May: “totus coelus taurulus fiat” (the whole sky turns into a little bull”).]
A constellation that ceases to mark the autumnal equinox, gliding below the equator, is drowned. This “formula” will make it easier to understand the myth of Deucalion, in which the devastating waves of the flood were ordered back by Triton’s blowing the conch. The conch had been invented by Aigokeros, i.e., Capricornus, who ruled the winter solstice in the world-age when Aries “carried” the sun.
At Time Zero, the two equinoctial “hinges” of the world had been Gemini and Sagittarius, spanning between them the arch of the Milky Way: both bicorporeal signs [n4 4 These constellations were, originally, called “bicorporeal” for reasons very different from those given by Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos 1.11.]–and so were Pisces, and Virgo with her ear of wheat, at the two other corners–to mark the idea that the way (the Milky Way itself) was open between earth and heaven, the way up and the way down’ here men and gods could meet in that Golden Age. As will be shown later, the exceptional virtue of the Golden Age was precisely that the crossroads of ecliptic and equator coincided with the crossroads of ecliptic and Galaxy, namely in Gemini and Sagittarius, both constellations “standing” firmly at two of the four corners of the quadrangular earth.
At the “top,” in the center high above the “dry” plane of the equator, was the Pole star. At the opposite top, or rather in the depth of the waters below, unobserved from our latitudes, was the southern pole, thought to be Canopus, by far the brightest star of these regions, more remarkable than the Southern Cross.
This brief sketch of archaic theory indicates–to repeat–that geography in our sense was never meant, but a cosmography of the kind needed even now by navigators. Ptolemy, the great geographer of antiquity, had been thinking of nothing else. His Geography is a set of coordinates drawn from the skies, and transferred onto an uncouth outline map of our globe, with a catalogue of earthly distances added on by sailors and travelers to pinpoint, or confirm, the positions of countries around the Mediterranean world. It was an uncouth outline map, for it covered only a few countries known around the Mediterranean region. Nothing was shown beyond the latitude 160 south of the equator and 30 north, corresponding to Iceland. Nothing west beyond the Canary Islands or east of the easternmost city of China, an arc of longitude fixed for simplicity at 180°, twelve equinoctial hours from end to end, the breadth over the whole latitudes being nine equinoctial hours. A large part of the space is blank and the limits are assigned, as they should be, astronomically. This is what the ancients knew after a thousand years of exploration, and they handed it down to the Renaissance. They called it the oikoumene, the inhabited earth.
One may well understand how the archaics gave this name for purely astronomical reasons to the zodiacal band, about as wide in degrees but embracing the whole globe. The world, the cosmos, was above, revolving majestically in twenty-four hours, and it lent itself to the passionate exploration of cosmographers through the starlit night. Astrology was the inevitable outcome of astronomy through those ages. The early Greeks derived their mathematics from astronomy. In those centuries, their insatiable curiosity developed a knowledge of our earth and the events on it which drove them to create the beginnings of our science. But soon after Aristotle, the Stoics reverted to the oriental pattern and reinstalled astrology. Three centuries of pre-Socratic thought had equipped them with an interest in physics, but with it they had nowhere to go. They still had no experimental science as we mean it. What they needed was an interpretation of influences, to go with the all-in-all that the cosmos has to be. Stoic physics was a seductive presentment of a field theory, but it was a counterfeit. Nothing was to come of it because the true implications of the archaic cosmos, no less than those of the Platonic, were incompatible with anything that our physics can think of. In Stoic physics there is no simple location, no analytical space.
It should be understood once and for all that the gulf between the archaic world and ours was as wide as science itself. Prodigies of exactitude and computation could not bridge it. Only the astronomical map could. Whitehead has summed it up succinctly: “Our science has been founded on simple location and misplaced concreteness.” Modern physics has turned the original words into queries. For Newton, it had the force of evidence: “No person endowed with a capacity of rational understanding will believe that a thing acts where it is not.” Newton himself put the first query, by stating the theory of gravitation–mathematically irresistible, physically unexplainable. He could only accept it: “I do not understand it, and I am going to feign no suppositions.” the answer was to come only with Einstein. It amounted to pure mathematical rationalization, which did away with simple location, and with concreteness altogether. The edifice of Descartes lay in ruins.
Nonetheless, the mind of civilized man clung to other principles invincibly, as being equal to common sense. It was a model case of habit having become second nature. The birth of experimental physics was a decisive factor in the change. No such common sense obtained once upon a time, when time was the only reality, and space had still to be discovered or invented by Parmenides after 500 B.C. (See G. de Santillana, “Prologue to Parmenides,” in Reflections on Men and Ideas , pp. 82-119.)
The task then was to recover from the remote past an utterly lost science, linked to an equally lost culture–one in which anthropologists have seen only illiterate “primitive man.” It was as if the legendary “Cathedrale Engloutie” emerged from prehistory with its bells still ringing.
The problem was also clear: this lost science, immensely sophisticated, had no “system,” no systematic key that could be a basis for teaching. It existed before systems could be thought of. It was, to repeat, a spontaneously generated “Art of the Fugue.” That is why it took us so many years to work it out.
The archaics’ vision of the universe appears to have left out all ideas of the earth suspended, or floating, in space. Whether or not this was really so cannot be decided yet: there are peculiar rumors to be heard about innumerable “Brahma-Eggs,” that is, spheres like our own, in India. The Maori of New Zealand claimed, as the Pythagoreans had done, that every star had mountains and plains, and was inhabited like the earth. Varahamihira (5th century A.D.) even stated that the earth was suspended between magnets. [n5 Pancasiddhantika, chapter 12 (Thibaut trans., p. 69): “The round ball of the earth, composed of the five elements, abides in space in the midst of the starry sphere, like a piece of iron suspended between magnets.”]. For the time being, one must continue to assume that the earth was simply the center of the world, and a sphere, and that there was no trace of Galilean relativism which is so natural to us posing so many problems of motion. The Greeks still had the old idea, but they asked themselves questions about it. What moved: as the sky, but questions about the sky posed abstruse problems. The greatest one was, of course, the slow motion of the tilt of the sky, described above, which went through a Great Year of 26,000 years.
The Greek astronomers had enough instrumentation and data to detect the motion, which is immensely slow, and they saw that it applied to the whole of the sky. Hipparchus in 127 b.c. called it the Precession of the Equinoxes. There is good reason to assume that he actually rediscovered this, that it had been known some thousand years previously, and that on it the Archaic age based its long-range computation of time. Modern archaeological scholars have been singularly obtuse about the idea because they have cultivated a pristine ignorance of astronomical thought, some of them actually ignorant of the Precession itself. The split between the two cultures begins right here. But apart from this, although the scholars unanimously cling to the accepted conventions about the tempo of historical evolution, they widely disagree when it comes to judging the evidence in detail. The verdicts concerning the familiarity of ancient Near Eastern astronomers with the Precession depend, indeed, on arbitrary factors: namely, on the different scholarly opinions about the difficulty of the task. Ernst Dittrich, for instance, remarked that one should not expect much astronomical knowledge from Mesopotamians around 2000 B.C. “Probably they knew only superficially the geometry of the motions of sun and moon. Thus, if we examine the simple, easily observable motions by means of which one could work out chronological determinants with very little mathematical knowledge, we find only the Precession.” [n6 “Gibt es astronomische Fixpunkte in del altesten babylonischen Chronologie?” OLZ 1) (1912), col. 104.] There was also a learned Italian Church dignitary, Domenico Testa, who snatched at this curious argument to prove that the world had been created ex nihilo, as described in the first book of Moses, an event that supposedly happened around 4000 B.C. If the Egyptians had had a background of many millennia to reckon with, who, he asked, could have been unaware of the Precession? “The very sweepers of their observatories would have known.” [n7 Il Zodiaco di Dendera Illustrato (1822), p. 17.]. Hence time could not have begun before 4000, Q.E.D.
The comparison of the views just quoted with those upheld by the majority of modem scholars shows that one’s own subjective opinions about what is easy and what is difficult might not be the most secure basis for a serious historiography of science. As Hans Ludendorff once pointed out, it is an unsound approach to Maya astronomy to start from preconceived convictions about what the Maya could have known and what they couldn’t possibly have known: one should, instead, draw conclusions only from the data as given in the inscriptions and codices. [n8 “Zur astronomischen Deutung del Maya-Inschriften,” SPAW (1936), p. 85.]. That this had to be stressed explicitly reveals the steady decline of scientific ethics.
We today are aware of the Precession as the gentle tilting of our globe, an irrelevant one at that. As the GI said, lost in the depth of jungle misery, when his friends took refuge in their daydreams: “When I close my eyes, I see only a mule’s behind. Also when I don’t.” This is, as it were, today’s vision of reality. Today, the Precession is a well established fact. The space-time continuum does not affect it. It is by now only a boring complication. It has lost relevance for our affairs, whereas once it was the only majestic secular motion that our ancestors could keep in mind when they looked for a great cycle which could affect humanity as a whole. But then our ancestors were astronomers and astrologers. They believed that the sliding of the sun along the equinoctial point affected the frame of the cosmos and determined a succession of world-ages under different zodiacal signs. They had found a large peg on which to hang their thoughts about cosmic time, which brought all things in fateful order. Today, that order has lapsed, like the idea of the cosmos itself. There is only history, which has been felicitously defined as “one damn thing after another.”
And yet, were history really understood in this admittedly flat sense of things happening one after another to the same stock of people, we should be better off than we are now, when we almost dare not admit the assumption from which this book starts, that our ancestors of the high and far-off times were endowed with minds wholly comparable to ours, and were capable of rational processes–always given the means at hand. It is enough to say that this flies in the face of a custom which has become already a second nature.
Our period may some day be called the Darwinian period, just as, we talk of the Newtonian period of two centuries ago. The simple idea of evolution, which it is no longer thought necessary to examine, spreads like a tent over all those ages that lead from primitivism into civilization. Gradually, we are told, step by step, men produced the arts and crafts, this and that, until they emerged into the light of history.
Those soporific words “gradually” and “step by step,” repeated incessantly, are aimed at covering an ignorance which is both vast and surprising. One should like to inquire: which steps. But then one is lulled, overwhelmed and stupefied by the gradualness of it all, which is at best a platitude, only good for pacifying the mind, since no one is willing to imagine that civilization appeared in a thunderclap.
One could find a key in a brilliant TV production on the Stonehenge problem given a few years ago. With the resources of the puissant techniques of ubiquity, various authorities were called to the screen to discuss the possible meaning of the astronomical alignments and polygons discovered in the ancient Megalith since 1906, when Sir Norman Lockyer, the famous astronomer, published the results of his first investigation. Specialists, from prehistorians to astronomers, expressed their doubts and wonderments down to the last one, a distinguished archaeologist who had been working on the monument itself for many years. He had more fundamental doubts. How could one not realize, he said, that the builders of Stonehenge were barbarians, “howling barbarians” who were, to say the least, utterly incapable of working out complex astronomical cycles and over many years at that? The uncertain coincidences must be due to chance. And then, with perverse irony, the midwinter sun of the solstice appeared on the screen rising exactly behind the Heel Stone, as predicted. The “mere” coincidences had been in fact ruled out, since Gerald Hawkins, a young astronomer unconcerned with historical problems, had run the positions through a computer and discovered more alignments than had been dreamed of. Here was the whole paradox. Howling barbarians who painted their faces blue must have known more astronomy than their customs and table manners could have warranted. The lazy word “evolution” had blinded us to the real complexities of the past.
That key term “gradualness” should be understood to apply to a vastly different time scale than that considered by the history of mankind. Human history taken as a whole in that frame, even raciation itself, is only an evolutionary episode. In that whole, CroMagnon man is the last link. All of protohistory is a last-minute flickering.
But while the biologists were wondering, something great had come upon the scene, arriving from unexpected quarters. Sir James George Frazer was a highly respected classical scholar who, while editing the Description of Greece by Pausanias, was impressed with the number of beliefs, practices, cults and superstitions spread over the classical landscape of Greece in classical times. This led him to search deeper into the half-forgotten strata of history, and out of it came his Golden Bough. The historian had turned ethnologist, and extended his investigations to the whole globe. Suddenly, an immense amount of material became available about fertility cults as the universal form of earliest religion, and about primitive magic connected with it. This appeared to be the humus from which civilization had grown–simple deities of the seasons, a dim multitude of peasants copulating in the furrows and building up rituals of fertility with human sacrifice. Added to this, in political circles, there came the vision of war as both inherent in human nature and ennobling-the law of natural selection applied to nations and races. Thus, many materials and much history went to build the temple of evolutionism. But as the theory moved on its highminded aspects began to wane; psychoanalysis moved in as a tidal wave. For if the struggle for life (and the religions of the life force) can explain so much, the unconscious can explain anything. As we know today only too well.
The universal and uniform concept of gradualness thus defeated itself. Those key words (gradualness and evolution) come from the earth sciences in the first place, where they had a precise meaning. Crystallization and upthrust, erosion and geosynclinals are the result of forces acting constantly in accordance with physical laws.
They provided the backdrop for Darwin’s great scenario. When it comes to the evolution of life, the terms become less precise in meaning, though still acceptable. Genetics and natural selection stand for natural law, and events are determined by the rolling of the dice over long ages. But we cannot say much about the why and the how of this instead of that specific form, about where species, types, cultures branched off. Animal evolution remains an overall historical hypothesis supported by sufficient data–and by the lack of any alternative. In detail, it raises an appalling number of questions to which we have no answer. Our ignorance remains vast, but it is not surprising.
And then we come to history, and the evolutionary idea reappears, coming in as something natural, with all scale lost. The accretion of plausible ideas goes on, its flow invisibly carried by “natural law” since the time of Spencer. It all remains within an unexamined kind of Naturphilosophie. For if we stopped to think, we would agree that as far as human “fate” is concerned organic evolution ceased before the time when history, or even prehistory, began. We are on another time scale. This is no longer, nature acting on man, but man on nature. People like to think of all constancy of laws which apply to us. But man is a law unto himself. When, riding on the surf of the general “evolutionism,” Ernst Haeckel and his faithful followers proposed to solve the “world riddles” once and for all, Rudolf Virchow [n9 In several of his addresses to the “Versammlungen deutscher Naturforscher und Arzte.”] warned time and again of an evil “monkey wind” blowing round; he reminded his colleagues of the index of excavated “prehistoric” skulls and pointed to the unchanged quantity of brain owned by the species Homo sapiens, but his contemporaries paid no heed to his admonitions; least of all the humanists who applied, without blinking , the strictly biological scheme of the evolution of organisms to the cultural history of the single species Homo sapiens.
In later centuries historians may declare all of us insane, because this incredible blunder was not detected at once an was not refuted with adequate determination. Mistaking cultural history for a process of gradual evolution, we have deprived ourselves of every reasonable insight into the nature of culture. It goes without saying that the still more modern habit of replacing “culture” by “society” has blocked the last narrow path to understanding history. Our ignorance not only remained vast, but became pretentious as well.
A glimpse at some Pensées might show the abyss that yawns between us and a serious thinker of those golden days before the outbreak of “evolution.” This is what Pascal asked: “what are our natural principles but principles of custom? In children they are those which they have received from the habits of their fathers, as hunting in animals. A different custom will cause different natural principles.” And: “Custom is a second nature which destroys the former. But what is nature? For is custom not natural? I am much afraid that nature is itself only a first custom, as custom is a second nature.” [n10 Pensees, nos. 92, 93 (Trotter trans. , p. 36).]
This kind of question, aimed with precision at the true problematical spots, would have been enough to make hash of social anthropology two centuries ago, and also of anthropological sociology. Although fully aware of the knot of frightening problems arising from the results of the most modern neurophysiology–the building up of micro neurons in the brain after birth, etc.–we are by no means entitled to feign any hypotheses beyond saying that the master brain who will, sooner or later, fashion a new philosophical anthropology deserving the title, one that will account for all the new implications, will find himself up against these same few questions of Pascal.
Some words have still to be said about the problem that is at the very root of the many misunderstandings, that of translation. Most of the texts were written–if they were ever originally written in remote and half-obliterated languages from the far past. The task of translation has been taken over by a guild of dedicated, highly specialized philologists who have had to reconstruct the dictionaries and grammars of these languages. It would be bad grace to dismiss their efforts, but one must take into account several layers of error: (1) personal or systematic errors, arising from their preconceptions and from well-implanted prejudices (psychological and philosophical) of their age; (2) the very structure of our own language, of the architecture of our own verbal system, of which very few individuals are aware. There was once a splendid article by Irwin Schroedinger, with the title “Are there quantum jumps?” whilch laid bare many such misunderstandings inside the well worked area of modern physics. [n11 British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 3 (1952), pp. 112ff.]. And all this ties up with another major source of error that comes from the underestimation of the thinkers of the far past. We instinctively dismiss the idea that five to ten thousand years ago there may very well have been thinkers of the order of Kepler, Gauss, or Einstein, working with the means at hand.
In other words, we must take language seriously. Imprecise language discloses the lack of precision of thought. We have learned to take the language of Archimedes or Eudoxos seriously, simply because it can translate directly into modern forms of thought. This should extend to forms of thought utterly different from ours in appearance. Take that great endeavor on the hieroglyphic language, embodied in the imposing Egyptian dictionary of Erman-Grapow. For our simple word “heaven” it shows thirty-seven terms whose nuances are left to the translator and used according to his lights. So the elaborate instructions in the Book of the Dead, referring to the soul’s celestial voyage, translate into “mystical” talk, and must be treated as holy mumbo jumbo. But then, modern translators believe so firmly in their own invention, according to which the underworld has to be looked for in the interior of our globe–instead of in the sky–that even 370 specific astronomical terms: would not cause them to stumble.
One small example may indicate the way in which texts are “improved.” In the inscriptions of Dendera, published by Dumichen, the goddess Hathor is called “lady of every joy.” For once, Dumichen adds: “Literally. . . ‘the lady of every heart circuit.'” [n12 Hon-t, rer het-neb; see J. Duemichen, “Die Bauurkunde der Tempelanlagen van Edfu,” Aeg.Z. 9 (1871), p. 28.]. This is not to say that the Egyptians had discovered the circulation of the blood. But the determinative sign for “heart” often figures as the plumb bob at the end of a plumb line coming from a well-known astronomical or surveying device, the merkhet. Evidently, “heart” is something very specific, as it were the “center of gravity.” [n13 See Aeg.Wb. 2, pp. 55f. for the sign of the heart (ib) as expressing generally “the middle, the center.”]. And this may lead in quite another direction. The Arabs preserved a name for Canopus–besides calling the star Kalb at-taiman
(“heart of the south”) [n14 S. Mowincke1, Die Sternnamen im Alten Testament (1928), p. 12.]: Suhail el-wezn, “Canopus Ponderosus,” the heavy-weighing Canopus, a name promptly declared meaningless by the experts, but which could well have belonged to an archaic system in which Canopus was the weight at the end of the plumb line, as befitted its important position as a heavy star at the South Pole of the “waters below.” Here is a chain of inferences which might or might not be valid, but it is allowable to test it, and no inference at all would come from the “lady of every joy.” The line seems to state that Hathor (= Hat Hor, “House of Horus”) “rules” the revolution of a specific celestial body–whether or not Canopus is alluded to–or, if we can trust the translation “every,” the revolution of all celestial bodies. As concerns the identity of the ruling lady, the greater possibility speaks for Sirius, but Venus cannot be excluded; in Mexico, too, Venus is called “heart of the earth.” The reader is invited to imagine for himself what many thousands of such pseudo-primitive or poetic interpretations must lead to a disfigured interpretation of Egyptian intellectual life.
The problem of astrology –The greatest gap between archaic thinking and modern thinking is in the use of astrology. By this is not meant the common or judicial astrology which has become once again a fad and a fashion among the ignorant public, an escape from official science, and for the vulgar another kind of black art of vast prestige but with principles equally uncomprehended. It is necessary to go back to archaic times, to a universe totally unsuspecting of our science and of the experimental method on which it is founded, unaware of the awful art of separation which distinguishes the verifiable from the unverifiable. This was a time, rich in another knowledge which was later lost, that searched for other principles. It gave the lingua franca of the past. Its knowledge was of cosmic correspondences, which found their proof and seal of truth in a specific determinism, nay overdeterminism, subject to forces completely without locality. The fascination and rigor of Number made it mandatory that the correspondences be exact in many forms (Kepler in this sense is the last Archaic). The multiplicity of relations seen or intuited brought the idea to a focus in which the universe appeared determined not on one but on many levels at once, This was the signature of “panmathematizing ideation.” This idea may well have led up to a pre-established harmony on an infinite number of levels. Leibniz has shown us how far it could go, given modern tools: the universe conceived all at once, complete, with its individual destinies for all time, out of, an “effulguration” of the divine mind, Some prehistoric or protohistoric Pythgorean Leibniz, whose existence is far from inconceivable, may well have cherished this impossible dream, going to the limit more innocently than our own historic sage.
Starting from the power of Number, a whole logic is thinkable in this view. Fata regunt orbem, certa stant omnia lege. The only thinker of Antiquity who could be proof against this temptation was Aristotle, for he thought that forms were only potential in the beginning, and came into actualization only in the course of their lifetime, thus undergoing their fate as individuals. But that is because Aristotle refused mathematics from the start. He had the grounds for opposing universal synchronicity (the word and the idea were invented by C. G. Jung, replacing space with time, which goes to show that the archaic scheme has more lives than a cat). Yet, here again, Dante comes to the fore as a witness; for, by art of Gramarye, as the simple used to say, he spans the whole itinerary, or shall we say the cheminement de la pensée, between two world-epochs. An Aristotelian to the core, steeped in the discipline of Thomism, hence by inheritance anti-mathematical, his spirit in its sweep understands the stars, in the sense of their Pythagorean implications. In his ascent to the realm of heaven, he encounters his friend and onetime companion of his wanton and romantic youth, Charles Martel (Paradiso, VIII. 3.4-37), who tells him what it means to be of the elect: “We circle in one orbit, at one pace, with one thirst, along with the heavenly Princes whom thou didst once address from the world”–“You Who by Understanding Move the Third Heaven.” This is one of his [Dante’s] early poems, a celebrated one at that, and it relates to the heavenly intelligences in a spirit of unrestrained Platonic worship. The progress of his song through the three realms will show him more and more wrapped in Platonic harmonies, much as he had dreamed of in his youth, and it will actually confirm his belief in astrology as a divine grant which keeps nature in order. Thus, the requirements of both doctrines have been saved: the arrangement of nature by genus and species (Aristotle) and the free development of one’s own self (Aquinas) in a kind of Plotinian compromise overshadowed by the “Harrnony of the Spheres.” Such was Dante’s own inimitable “art of Gramarye.”